Boxing has always been a tricky sport to capture on screen, even within contemporary cinema, I still find myself pointing out the artificiality of their movement and reactions, at times exaggerated or either under-emphasised; the greatest of filmmakers who attempt to capture such a sport tends to stray away from the action itself, instead finding focus on the participating figures, to the point of penetration where emotional weight begins to run through us as we see them take on their opponent. Martin Scorsese takes on the psychological fractures of a self-destructing boxer, hyper-stylising the ring to the point of even fantasy, with intentions towards evoking strong symbolism and emotional resonance.
Four years before the release of Raging Bull, John G. Avildsen along with Sylvester Stallone’s screenplay and starring performance, Rocky; a tale of a boxer that takes on genre with a more intimate approach, one that concerns more of the titular character’s domestic life, the relationships he forms/formed and his endurance in a world that rarely gives him any more favours. It is here that Avildsen creates a sense of melancholia that is profound for the character and infectious for the audience, I found myself deeply drawn and sympathetic of his good natured attitudes and sense of loneliness as he walks among the streets of Philadelphia, along with his pitiful low-level status among the citizens of his town. Stallone and Avildsen easily could have remained with this sense of sympathy, to the point of indulgence and sentiment; but the film humanises him with flaws and complexities that never become too transparent, but at times present within his tone of speech and a self-loathing outlook on his life.
It is evident that Avildsen found inspiration in the grounded and sympathetic perspective of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront as he surrounds Stallone’s Rocky in a backdrop of ship docks and blue collar workers, finding sadness in a man who could have had glory; but unlike Kazan’s film, Avildsen and Stallone decided to take a far more hopeful path, one where fate would land him an opportunity to be amongst the big league, to fight the current Heavy Weight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), whom only took on such an offer due to the lack of top fighters and to further push promotion and profit. This was a fight that meant little to Apollo, and massive for Rocky; Avildsen displays a man finally with a significant sense of purpose, something completely for himself rather than for his employers in the hopes of a petty cut of the profits. The film’s first hour explores his life and the Philadelphia working class landscape, but diverting away from the intentions of Kazan’s film, Avildsen remains loyal to Rocky, unafraid to let sentiment enter and eliminate unnecessary exposure to the potential seedy life of crime that he has found himself into; his acts as a debt collector for a local gangster is viewed with a sense of desperation from the titular figure, displaying a sense of restraint and pity to those he hassles, but ensuring that the true aim is met to ensure payment.
In terms of sentiment, the atmosphere is at its most prominent when concerning his slow burning relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire), a pet shop clerk who suffers from social anxiety, at times almost mute when initiated in conversation by Rocky. In their relationship, Rocky is seen in a redemptive light, one that is driven to be in such a relationship not for motives derived from superficiality, his attraction for her is much deeper, seeing her as the perfect figure for his gap-filled life, one that would fill the holes and would make him a much better person. Avildsen also allows Adrian to gain a sense of growth, we see her slowly climbing out of her shell, albeit fast in transition, and become a much more healthier and happier person; with Talia Shire providing the role with a sense of sincerity and pitch perfect expressions and movement, a level of detail that the film could have easily buried. It was almost as if Shire challenged herself and saw the essence of such a character, finding opportunities to flesh out the character even when the Avildsen and his camera is far more concerned on Stallone.
That being said, Stallone did however steal the show as a lonely and self-loathing figure who attempts the best he can in his given circumstance to live day to day, displaying a sense of transformation once the film’s premise begins to churn into motion, and displaying wonderful chemistry with many of his co-stars. The direction that his career has taken as an action superstar has further added significance to his performance here in Rocky, a rare grounded depth and sentimental emotion that many of his recent films refuses to acknowledge; even his efforts in Grudge Match was handled with a sense of self-parody rather than creation of pure sincerity.
The film also features an early utilisation of the newly invented Steadicam by Garrett Brown, during which I felt Brown, the film’s cinematographer James Crabe, and Avildsen’s exploitative and self-conscious intentions; much like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane where he allows the film’s innovations to be palpable during every opportunity, but much like Welles’ film, it never reaches to the point of major distraction. The usage of Steadicam does allow the performance to achieve a sense of naturalism, giving the actors far more breathing room to ensure the authenticity of their performance, and exposing the streets of Philadelphia with far more grace and subtlety.
Though Rocky’s stature in the world of pop culture is flourishing, it never severely affected the way I viewed the film, in fact the experience was actually more rewarding as its key moments are able to strike me with such power that I found myself with chills through the back of my spine. It is a film that is much deserving of its accolades and is undoubtedly timeless.